Government & Politics

What is politics?

Politics exists because people disagree. They disagree about how they should live (moral questions), about who should get what (resource questions) and about who should make decisions (power questions).

As an activity, politics is the process through which people with different ideas, values, opinions and interests attempt to find a way of living together within the same society. Politics therefore seeks to establish the general rules under which we live and it is those rules that make orderly existence possible. As such, politics is the most basic and necessary of social activities — without orderly existence, society will degenerate into a civil war of each against all. For the Greek philosopher  Aristotle, politics was the ‘master science’: that is, nothing less than the activity through which people try to improve their lives and create the ‘good society’.

Why study politics?

Who should study politics, and why? The short answer is that everyone should study politics — all members of society should have a better understanding of the general rules under which they live.  For these rules to be effective, as many people as possible should actively participate in making them, upholding them and maybe, changing them. This is what is meant by ‘active citizenship’.

A healthy society is a society in which many people participate in political activity and do so with insight and understanding.  What makes politics different as an academic subject is its emphasis on debate, discussion and argument. If politics exists because people disagree

studying politics must mean studying how, why and when people disagree and taking an interest in these disagreements. What is more, we study these things not as neutral observers but as active participants. Facts (what is) and values (what should be) are so closely entwined in politics that it is often impossible to prise them apart.

Politics is therefore particularly likely to suit students who:

  • have an interest in the world around them — ones who want to know more about the society they live in, how it works and how it could work
  • enjoy debate, discussion and argument — ones who are comfortable with the fact that in politics there are no simple ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’
  • like to think for themselves — ones who want to develop their own views, rather than accept the views of others.